Kiss My Cassoulet!

Photo by Matt OttoNothing has made me more livid of late than the anti-Gallic fervor abroad in the land caused by the Franco-American rift over how to deal with this Iraq mess. French-bashing, a peculiarly asinine form of reverse snobbery, has always been acceptable here in the States. But it has been taken to new heights by jingoistic pols and pundits who want to punish France for their outspoken opposition to Dubya's warmongering.

Never mind that there are a good many of us here at home with our doubts about invading and occupying a country on the other side of the globe that poses no immediate threat to our national security. Or that France is hardly the only U.S. ally to object to Bush's Iraq policy. Instead, Republican lawmakers, with apparently little else to do, talk up restrictions on French vino and force Congressional cafeterias to call French fries "freedom fries."

Pardon moi, but is that retarded or what? Perhaps Republicans would do better to ban French kissing among their own cousins.

While my French is little better than Inspector Clouseau's, I still consider myself a Francophile. My favorite writer? The French decadent J.K. Huysmans. My favorite film? Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game. And my favorite food type? Well, probably Persian. But French is a close second.

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So in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson—who stated, "Every man has two nations: his own and France"—this gluttonous gourmand decided last week to patronize one of the best French restaurants in the county, Newport Beach's Bistro le Crillon. After all, if the knuckle-draggers out there are boycotting French fare, that means all the more for me!

Ensconced between a drugstore and the nouveau American eatery Sage, Bistro le Crillon is a quaint, Provençal-themed restaurant with rough-hewn chairs and candle-lit tables covered by pretty yellow cloths. Watercolors of lemons and pears hang on peach-colored walls, and overhead are thick, dark beams. A large wooden bar and country-style cupboard complete the illusion you are dining in Avignon or Crillon-le-Brave, the latter being the village in Provence from which chef Chantal Berton's family hails.

Trained in Paris, the beautiful, flaxen-haired Berton runs Bistro le Crillon with her hubby, Italian-born Diego Ostochi, a gracious, garrulous fellow who oversees their impressive wine list and makes certain each guest is well-treated. "Please don't say I have anything to do with the food," he admonished, "or I'll be in big trouble with my wife!"

Berton is quite skilled, judging by my entrée that night: an earthenware pot of cassoulet—the source of the word "casserole," although this classic French dish is nothing like the breadcrumb-encrusted goo you're likely envisioning. Rather, this is a hearty mixture of flageolets blancs (white French beans), confit of duck and three types of sausage. Simmered and baked for days on end, the result is a mildly tangy bouquet of flavors, which I inhaled with the aid of two glasses of the house red, Chateau Crillon, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, available only through the restaurant.

My companion had Berton's beef Bourguignon, beef in wine sauce atop penne pasta. She allowed me a taste, and that was enough to make me look forward to our next visit. Our entrées were preceded by a Caesar salad and escargots, which were no worse or better, I'm afraid, than I've had at dozens of establishments.

Dessert, however, was magnificent: chocolate soufflé made with fresh crème and bittersweet Valrhona chocolate from Tain-l'Hermitage. The other tables oohed and aahed as it was brought to us. With our cups of piping-hot coffee, it made the perfect cap to the evening.

Dressed in her white smock, Berton came out to thank all of her guests and was thanked in return. I was reminded of the warmth of the French people that I have experienced firsthand. Truly, the only rudeness I've ever encountered in France was at the hands of fellow Americans. Oh, I can hear the know-nothings howl, "Why don't you go live there then?" Would that I could, boyo. Would that I could.

Bistro le Crillon, Eastbluff Village Shopping Center, 2523 Eastbluff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-8181; Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m.; Sat., 5:30-10 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $92, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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Bistro Le Crillon

2523 Eastbluff Dr.
Newport Beach, CA 92660


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